Cinematic déjà vu comes over me whenever I make my way to the city of Jaisalmer in India. I have found myself twice in that golden city in the state of Rajasthan without planning and plotting a trip there. But each time I have found myself in the strong grips of nostalgia as I lay my eyes on the golden fort that has come to be known as Sonar Kella (Bengali for golden fort) after a film of the same name by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
If it so happens that you mention ‘Sonar Kella’ to a fellow traveller inside the fort and you are overheard by locals, their faces light up with grins as they identify you immediately as a Bengali. They are rather proud of Ray’s film that was largely shot within the fort’s sprawling interiors.
No trip to Jaisalmer can be complete without trawling through the alleys of the historic fort. It was built in 1156 AD by Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal and unlike most forts, it has people, though strictly Rajputs and Brahmins, living within its ramparts. The advantages of it being a living fort: you can walk in any time.
If the fort — made of sand limestone – enchants you with its honey gold beauty, the havelis of Jaisalmer demand equal attention to their intricate architecture. Carved out of sandstone, they belonged to the rich merchants of yesteryears. The most famous of them is Patwon ki Haveli, built by Guman Chand Patwa, a famous trader of gold, brocade and silver. The five-storied haveli was constructed in 1800-1860 by Patwa for his five sons. There is a hint of scandal and gossip here — locals believe that the family also conducted a flourishing business in opium.
It is not entirely unbelievable given the time and its particular penchant for opium. Even now, you would find shops outside the fort, hole-in-the-wall affairs really, that sell the intoxicant, bhang or cannabis. And what’s more, they are government recognised shops. The average loot, when I checked into the shops, consisted of bhang sweets, thandai or a cold beverage made with almonds, spices, milk, sugar and bhang, fudge and cookies generously injected with bhang. You have to see it to believe it. And then try not to go overboard with bhang induced gifts for friends.
A strictly-not-to-miss edible adventure while you are near the fort is a stop at the famous kachori shop of Dhanraj Bhattia in the gallis (alleys) inside the market. The pyaaz ki kachoris (round flattened flour balls stuffed with spicy onion filling) are guaranteed to make you swoon. The owner has enough on his menu to tempt your tastebuds. So do go with an appetite to do his fare justice.
While it is full of lanes and bylanes, the city is small. You simply cannot get lost. Meanwhile in its various corners, you find the fossil stone that is reminiscent of the age of the city. Some one hundred and eighty million years ago, the Thar Desert (that Jaisalmer is home to) lay under water.
A few notes of caution: While trawling its oft cobble-stoned narrow alleys, it is advisable not to tinker around with your smart phone. For one, you would not want to be caught eye-to-eye with a large-horned cow or be bumped off by the many bikes that compete with the cows for right of passage through the alleys.
Meanwhile, if you are a naïve tourist, beware of tour guides who charge a hefty sum to take the unsuspecting to the Desert National Park near Sam and pass off the fences of the park as an international border with Pakistan.
The scorching glare of the desert sun lends an almost shimmering glow to the fort and havelis, yet there is more to it. My first experience of dune safari is embedded in the sun-soaked sands of Sam, about 45km from Jaisalmer.
‘They’ll take you dune bashing, make you go on a camel, put mehndi, seat you around in carpets and feed you bad Arabic food. Then they’ll have a belly dancer who will make some fat guy from the audience dance with her’. I was thus introduced to the concept of dune bashing (exploring sand dunes the off-road way in four-wheel drives) by a friend of mine who indulges in it pretty often in the deserts of Dubai.
In a group of 20, split into various SUVs, we whizzed past vast stretches of barren sands dotted sparsely by a shrub or two. We were engaged soon by the sight of the exotic – clusters of white tents huddled together while trails of highly decorated camels swayed lazily into the distance with tourists holding on to their saddled humps.
Suddenly, after kicking up a whole lot of dust while driving down a narrow road, we were in the midst of a sandy tableau.
Now, before getting started with dune bashing, the tyres are deflated till a certain point so as to reduce their downward pressure on the sand.
It took just about five minutes for Rouel, our skilled Filippino driver, to deal with the deflation bit. Once however strapped in place, it was time for stomach-hurtling action as Rouel kicked into gear and we rolled down almost vertical sand dunes. The appeal of bashing the dunes lies in the crazy twists and turns and tumbles. That is of course the feeling if you happen to dig roller coasters as much as I do.
What a treat it was to watch the vehicles in front kick up insane amounts of sand while occasionally a fountain of sand would land splat on the windscreen and be shifted off by the wind in a trice.
But the sun in Sam being really fine, the vehicles in front of us got stuck more than once in the most awkward positions. Once we stepped down for a look at the sand dunes, it was fascinating to see the shifting golden sands and the shifting patterns they made with the ruffling wind.
A session of dune bashing lasts about 90 minutes – enough to thrill you for the day. Over with our quota of off-road driving, we made for a camp set up by Lama Tours, the Dubai-based outfit that was conducting our dune safari.
It took some 15 minutes for us to reach it though it was whiled away pleasurably taking in the beauty of the sun – in Sam you can revel in the sun setting as a fiery globe in the west, in the midst of a horizon that turns crimson and subsequently a blend of pale pink and mauve. At the same time, look east and you see the full orb of the moon coming up in a dusky blue sky. The sun setting and the moon rising simultaneously is one of the highlights of Sam.
As an alfresco affair, the camp recreated an experience that made me feel like a sheikh out on one of his decadent jaunts. The evening started off with a wobbly camel ride. It ended on a note of red wine and ‘maas ke sholey’ (spicy red meat) under a star-studded sky as magicians, sensual Latino dancers, Russian dancers swaying to Bollywood numbers, and Rajasthani folk musicians wooed our overwrought senses.
My other experience in Jaisalmer was that of a pure hedonist. It involved a stay in a new luxury boutique hotel called Suryagarh.
As the Kahala Phata Sam road to the dunes of Sam in the Thar desert winds on, a dramatic note is struck when a honey gold castle emerges mirage-like in the middle of nowhere. At the very outset, with its many golden bastions and turrets, Suryagarh aims to awe. It reminds you of the quintessential maharaja’s palace. The first of its kind in Jaisalmer, the hotel aspires to a fort-like atmosphere pat down to the sati handprints at its gates and the crest of arms – a distinctly Rajputana touch — stamped on its driveway.
A tiny vintage-style wooden door at the main entrance opens up into a cool, dark lobby (a haven of sorts after you have braved the mind-numbing heat of the desert). It in turn opens into a massive courtyard that is distinguished by the kind of intricate jaali (lattice) work you notice in Jaisalmer’s havelis of yore.
Suryagarh’s forte? Out and out opulence. Within its array of 62 rooms inthe hotel — the undeniably plush tones are set by the Jaisalmer Suite. Its brownie points are the jacuzzi fitted into the massive bathroom and a private plunge pool on its private terrace. You will therefore be expected not to squawk at the not-so-modest sum of Rs 75,000 per night that the Jaisalmer Suite calls for.
If you are headed there for the weekend, like I did, you can easily spend about a day in the hotel without boredom threatening to set in. The place offers plenty of entertainment and be-spoke experiences. I luxuriated in its Rait Milk Spa which quite made me preen thinking of Egyptian queen, known for her weakness for milk and honey baths. The hotel has an indoor pool, Neel, to beat the sandstorms in the desert, a gym called Akhara and a bar with a bar table that is shaped as a Rajasthani’s lion moustache.
In the evening for high tea, we set out for the sand dunes, where a camel ride (the Rajasthanis love their camels) later, we reclined on fat bolsters under a latticed canopy. And soaked in the lilting notes piped out by a double flute player as we watched the stars popping out one by one in the purple sky.
My curiosity about the story of the abandoned town of the Paliwal Brahmins, a favourite in Jaisalmer, was sated when we drove down to it about 18km west of Jaisalmer. Kuldhara was home to the Paliwal Brahmins since 1291. Till in the span of a single night in 1825, residents of all its 84 villages disappeared. The reason behind it is speculated to be the reigning dewan’s wish to marry the chief’s beautiful daughter. Local lore says that the Paliwal Brahmins even laid a curse, prophesying death and suffering for anyone who tried to live there.
The frail man guarding the entrance to the village, 75-year-old Sumer Ram, is now the only individual who lives in the vicinity of the ghost town of crumbling mud houses.
A small episode that shook me up was the branding of camels. If you are watchful enough, you might just chance upon the branding of the camels among the dunes. The hapless creatures are seared with red hot iron to mark them as part of a brood.
Yet it is an integral part of the aura of Jaisalmer. And makes me wish for more desert adventures.
(Versions of these stories were published in The Telegraph on June 3, 2012 and on May 13, 2010)